Ogden gives teachers ultimatum
In a dramatic break with tradition, Ogden School District is refusing to negotiate with teachers over a contract and plans to eventually base their pay on performance instead of experience.
The district sent notices to teachers last weekend, notifying them that it is not negotiating with the Ogden Education Association for a collective 2011-12 contract. Teachers are asked to sign and return an individual contract no later than 4 p.m. on July 20 or their jobs will be advertised as open for hire.
Ogden district also announced it will move away from "steps," the profession-wide standard of giving raises based on years of experience, and toward performance-based pay. Steps will be phased out over the next six years and eliminated in the 2016-17 school year. The notices to teachers are stamped with "response required" in large, red text.
"I feel sick to my stomach," said Sara Byrd, a science teacher at Highland Junior High who will soon become Ogden Education Association vice president. "A lot of the teachers in this district are here because they want to be. It's not an easy district to work in, but the board doesn't care. They just think we're expendable like Kleenex."
Byrd said she'll likely sign the contract because she's expecting a baby in October, leaving her with few other options. But she said she will probably start looking for another job next year. She said she's heard other teachers say they won't sign the contract.
It's unclear how many teachers might refuse to sign, effectively walking away from their jobs. Doug Stephens, Ogden Education Association president, said there's no question that the economy is tough and there's a lot of competition for some teaching jobs now.
But, he said, "Just because you can do something doesn't mean it's right to do something." He said he's advised teachers to sign the contract, saying they have little choice, but has asked them to hold off until July 14 to give the state and national education associations time to see whether there's any other option. He said Ogden teachers are planning an informational rally for July 14 at Ogden's Liberty Park.
He called the changes "unprecedented" in Utah. Kory Holdaway, Utah Education Association (UEA) government relations director, also said Ogden is the first school district in the state to make such changes. Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation at the State Office of Education, agreed, saying she believes the Ogden is the first district to skip contract negotiations, in recent memory, and replace steps with performance pay.
Stephens added: "We are the ones that take care of the kids. We're the ones that do all the teaching, and to be treated like that is horrible."
The union is not opposed to the idea of merit pay, he said, but teachers are nervous that the district is asking them to agree to a system that has not yet been designed.
"We're not afraid to have someone judge us as to whether or not we're good teachers," Stephens said. "We know we're good teachers. We work hard. But it's just a very difficult thing to judge what is good teaching and what is bad teaching. How do you differentiate between an English teacher and history teacher, or band teacher or P.E. teacher?"
Noel Zabriskie, Ogden's superintendent, said the district plans to develop a new evaluation system in the next few years, relying on both national research and feedback from teachers. Student achievement, as measured by each student's academic growth in one year, would be just one of several components, he said.
"The board is getting a lot of input from constituents saying for a person to be there from one year to the next is great, but we need to make sure, with accountability, we're getting good performance out of the teachers and, of course, students learn."
Jennifer Zundel, vice president of the Ogden Board of Education, called the "step" pay schedule "unfair to all teachers," because they hit a cap after 16 years and are not recognized for their performance.
"We want to reward all of our excellent teachers and not just for being there but for the work that they do," she said. "The step system doesn't do that."
Ogden plans to keep "lanes," which are pay increases for obtaining additional education.
For 2011-12, all teachers who sign their contracts will get a 1.6 percent cost-of-living raise. Moves to higher steps will not be funded, but there will be some adjustments to make the pay schedule more uniform, ensuring a 3.27 percent increase between every step, which will result in an additional raise for some teachers. Ogden, which received $2.3 million less in state funds for the upcoming school year, plans to dip into its reserves to pay for the salary boosts.
Zabriskie said he expects the district will resume negotiations with the teachers' association in the future. The 2010-11 school year ended without a negotiated contract due to a stalemate.
Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, called the changes in Ogden "courageous," comparing it to some other districts' new approach to unions.
"I think we are seeing a lot greater trend both locally and nationally with [local education agencies] saying, 'We're no longer going to let you blackmail us in all sorts of other areas [unrelated to pay] when we're talking about teacher compensation,' " Clark said.
This year, Canyons School District refused to negotiate three policies that had traditionally been negotiated, such as the student discipline policy. Three weeks ago, the Canyons Education Association declared an impasse in its annual contract negotiations due to the district's stance.
Performance pay has been a hot topic both in Utah and nationwide for years. A number of schools in Utah are already using performance pay under a state pilot program and as part of a federal grant, but those schools tend to give teachers performance pay on top of their regular pay, not instead of it. Several years ago, all Utah districts were asked to develop their own performance pay plans but that idea was ultimately pulled back when the state budget got too tight. Some charter schools are also already using performance pay.
In 2009, 84 percent of Utahns surveyed for a Salt Lake Tribune poll said they would support "basing part of a state teacher's salary on performance." But not all the evidence supports performance pay. A 2010 study conducted by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt found that rewarding teachers with bonus pay does not, alone, raise student test scores.
Holdaway said Wednesday the UEA is "exploring a number of different approaches" in terms of possibly challenging Ogden School District, but said it's too early to discuss specifics.
Read the teachers' contract
O Ogden School District has posted its 2011-12 "common contract" for teachers at > bit.ly/o56eeh.